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Alternative Fracks

By Elliott H. Gue on Mar. 18, 2017

Fourth-quarter results and 2017 guidance from the big four oil-field service companies—Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB), Halliburton (NYSE: BHI), Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI) and Weatherford International (NYSE: WFT)—highlighted recovering drilling and completion activity in the US onshore market and ongoing challenges in international markets.

Once again, the prospect of increased upstream capital expenditures appears most robust in prolific US shale oil and gas fields, where exploration and production companies have taken advantage of the recovery in oil prices to hedge future output and ramp up spending.

The Permian Basin in West Texas may be the hottest area in terms of drilling activity, asset acquisitions and media coverage. That said, the recovery in the US rig count looks broader that one might expect, with the formerly out-of-favor Eagle Ford Shale and the Haynesville Shale posting surprisingly impressive gains.

In contrast, international capital expenditures are expected to remain flat to slightly down in 2017, with the Middle East and Russia regarded two markets with any upside.

Although we struggle to identify a compelling reason to buy any of the big four at current valuations, recent weakness in the energy sector—and questions from readers—have prompted us to delve into names that offer concentrated exposure to the US onshore market.

The bullish case for US oil-field services hinges on accelerating drilling and completion activity helping to relieve the capacity overhang built up during the boom years, potentially setting the stage for a recovery in pricing.

Industry survivors with superior scale and balance sheets may have an opportunity to take market share from smaller operators. Oil-field service companies have also slashed costs aggressively, providing earnings leverage to a recovery in volumes.

At the same time, investors must remember that many of these companies operate cyclical businesses and consider the extent to which current valuations have priced in any incremental upside in earnings.

We continue to expect short-cycle US shale plays to take market share in coming years, as underinvestment in deepwater plays and other complex developments manifests itself in the international decline rate. Chevron Corp (NYSE: CVX) and Exxon Mobil Corp’s (NYSE: XOM) plans to allocate a growing portion of their budgets to US shale development underscore this point.

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